Calvary, film review: Dark religious comedy is caustic look at the sins of the fathers

Amid the black humour, it stands up as a moving and sincere drama

“Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned,” reads the quote that opens Calvary. It’s attributed to St Augustine but was also one of Samuel Beckett’s favourite paradoxes. There is a strong whiff of Beckett-like absurdism and bleak humour in the film, which benefits from a performance of wonderfully droll dignity and bemusement from Brendan Gleeson as a priest confronting his mortality.

John Michael McDonagh's previous feature, The Guard, like his brother Martin's films In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, was a shaggy dog story, funny, macabre, and whimsical by turns. Calvary has altogether more heft to it. The tone is set right at the outset as we see Gleeson's priest Father James in close up, hearing confession from an unseen man. The shot of Gleeson is held for a mini-eternity as the man details the extreme abuse he suffered as a child. He was seven years old when he "first tasted semen" and was raped "orally and anally" by a "bad" priest. Gleeson's character is a "good" priest but the man has decided to kill him anyway - and will give him until a week on Sunday to set his affairs in order.

The scene wrong foots and challenges the audience. Initially, it seems comic but there is nothing funny in child sexual abuse. Father James is uncertain how seriously to take the threat to his life.

McDonagh's portrayal of a rural Irish community is very caustic, indeed. Casual racism (something also evident in The Guard), wife-beating, alcoholism and theft prevail. Characters may look as if they're eccentrics on leave from some Ealing-style comedy but most are either psychopathic or tormented. The community even has its own Hannibal Lecter-like cannibal, a sweet-natured young man who tells the Priest that human flesh tasted like pheasant, a bit "gamey".

Meat and murder: Brendan Gleeson and Chris O’Dowd in Calvary Meat and murder: Brendan Gleeson and Chris O’Dowd in Calvary Without labouring the point, McDonagh makes it clear that we are in an Ireland still reeling from economic collapse. The local squire Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran) stands for the banker types who grew filthy rich during the heyday of the Celtic Tiger. In one grotesque scene, we see him take a Holbein masterpiece from his wall and urinate on it to demonstrate to the priest his disdain for worldly goods. The painting is Holbein's The Ambassadors, famous for its anamorphic skull and yet another reminder for the priest that death is nearby. The scene is shot low down and behind him from between his legs so that we can see the priest in the background as the liquid splatters on the canvas.

The humour in Calvary is almost always undercut by references to death, suffering and violence. Characters show a reckless contempt for one another and they all love to goad and provoke the priest. The promiscuous Veronica Brennan (Orla O'Rourke) is keen to share details about her latest romantic trysts. Dr Frank Harte ( Aidan Gillen), the proud atheist who sees plenty of extreme suffering at the local hospital, relishes telling the priest grim stories about victims of freak accidents. Simon Asamoah (Isaach de Bankolé), the Ghana-born mechanic, flicks ash on him and threatens him with physical violence. The butcher (Chris O'Dowd) taunts him relentlessly. The local detective inspector (Gary Lydon) is relentlessly sarcastic about the church. The priest's fiery-tempered daughter (Kelly Reilly), who comes to visit him from London, is still angry at him for his abandonment of her.

In Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest (1951), an obvious inspiration here, a rural community treats a young priest with disdain because he is young, effete and has  a high-minded view of religion entirely out  of keeping with the grind of their daily lives. Gleeson's character, by contrast, is worldly wise. He may be dressed in a soutane but that doesn't stop him driving a sports car, usually with his beloved dog in the passenger seat.

Read more: Chris O'Dowd: From Bridesmaids to Broadway
Aidan Gillen is taking on an existential crisis

McDonagh litters the film with visual gags and trademark cynical, wisecracking dialogue. His view of human nature often seems bleak.  "A friend is just an enemy you haven't made yet," is a typical one-liner. After an unexplained fire, the cops refuse to rule out terrorist involvement... at least until a local observer drags them back to their senses, pointing out, "I don't think Sligo is too high on Al Qaeda's agenda."

The wonder of Calvary is that amid all the blarney and black humour, it stands up as a moving and sincere drama about religious faith and the fear of death. McDonagh includes many shots of Father James alone against rugged landscapes or walking down a deserted beach. We see his face frequently in close up.

The director has talked about the humour in Calvary being Buñuelian, "anarchic, dark and lacerating". In films from Un Chien Andalou to Viridiana, Buñuel excoriated Catholicism and mocked its priests. McDonagh does something similar in Calvary. Nonetheless, Father James is still the hero of the film: its only character not driven by self-interest. Gleeson squeezes out the pathos and the comedy in a man who dotes on his pet dog and is as comfortable around guns and alcohol as he is giving communion. At the same time, he gives Father James grace and moral authority - and those are not qualities that we've encountered before in films from either of the McDonagh brothers.

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat